A Minnesota judge has ordered the release of state files related to the 27-year investigation into the kidnapping and murder of Jacob Wetterling.
Family members had objected to the release of certain documents they considered too personal, but Seventh Judicial District Judge Ann Carrott ruled Thursday that a Minnesota law unambiguously states that investigative files become public once a case has concluded, unless there's a specific exception in the law.
A coalition of news media and open government entities sought access to the full record.
Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall reviewed the files and determined last year that state law made public 56,733 pages in 10,399 individual documents. But Jacob's parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, objected to the release of 168 pages contained in 22 of those documents because they considered them invasive and said they shed no light on the investigation.
Earlier this year, federal prosecutors obtained a court order requiring Stearns County to return FBI records in the case, leaving just six state investigative documents, containing 89 pages, in dispute. Of those, the Wetterlings objected to the release of 29 pages, which they argued were constitutionally protected by the right of "informational privacy."
Kendall issued a statement Friday saying she's awaiting a notice of appeal — or notice that there will not be an appeal — on Thursday's ruling as well as Carrott's March 29 ruling ordering the county to return the FBI records. The parties have 60 days to appeal.
The Wetterlings say they favor public access to investigative files but they want limits respecting the privacy of crime victims. They have lobbied for a change to the state public records law.
Mark Anfinson, the attorney for the media and open government coalition, said Friday that he was pleased with Carrott's ruling on the Stearns County records, and that he expects to appeal her ruling on the federal records.
Doug Kelley, an attorney for the Wetterlings, said he and his clients are reviewing Carrott's ruling with regard to an appeal.
"We are reviewing the option in order to maximize the opportunity to benefit for future victims, as well as for the Wetterling family," Kelley said. "I view Judge Carrott's opinion as an invitation to the Legislature to review the Data Practices Act" for possible changes that would provide "a safety valve for privacy."
He noted that a number of states, as well as the federal Freedom of Information Act, have privacy exceptions that allow withholding of otherwise-public data.
Carrott wrote that the Minnesota Supreme Court has recognized that the Legislature balanced an individual's privacy rights with the public's right to be fully informed about government operations when it created and modified the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act over the past 44 years. That said, she noted that her ruling was the first to address the question of whether a constitutional right to informational privacy trumps the Data Practices Act.
States and federal appellate courts differ on how they protect privacy rights in criminal files. Thus far, the U.S. Supreme Court has not extended the constitutional right of privacy to include the right to prevent the disclosure of personal information, Carrott wrote.
Carrott also noted that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals — which reviews court rulings in Minnesota, Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and the Dakotas — has issued no rulings to "support the conclusion that an individual can claim a right of informational privacy to prevent the government from disclosing information classified as public by state statute." She wrote that the Eighth Circuit has ruled that a right to privacy exists "in initial nondisclosure of personal information to a government agency, but it has never held that this right not to give personal information to the government bars the disclosure of information once it was obtained."
The Wetterlings said in a statement they were saddened by the ruling that the personal materials must be released.
"Our lawsuit was never about preventing the media from seeing the case file; it was about preventing victims and their families from further harm," they said.
They praised the media for responsible coverage and said they trust that will continue.
"Our hope is that, beyond the media, whoever reads the file will also have a discerning eye and will treat the information respectfully," they said.
They added that the material they sought to suppress likely will hurt others, and for that, they apologized.
"There have been so many victims involved in Jacob's abduction. It is heartbreaking," they wrote. They closed by saying that they would continue their efforts to change Minnesota's public records law to prevent harm to other crime victims.
Federal law allows for the suppression of private information. The Star Tribune has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for access to the federal investigative documents. That request is pending.
Jacob Wetterling was 11 years old when he was kidnapped Oct. 22, 1989, in St. Joseph as he and his brother and best friend were headed home from a local convenience store, where they had rented a video. The boy's fate and whereabouts remained a mystery until late summer 2016, when, as part of a plea agreement to settle federal child pornography charges, Danny Heinrich confessed to killing him and burying his body in a pasture outside Paynesville, Minn.
Heinrich was sentenced to 20 years in prison.